Teresa Galindo, 72, a native of Mexico, has lived in the U.S. without legal status for nearly 30 years. Like many other undocumented immigrants, one of the most painful aspects of her situation has been the inability to visit loved ones in her home country before their deaths.
"It's been very difficult for me," she told CBS News in Spanish. "I couldn't go back to my hometown because I didn't have papers."
Galindo's parents died while she was living in New York and raising her children. Because she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 1990 with four of her children and remained undocumented ever since, Galindo would likely have been barred from re-entering the U.S. for a decade if she had traveled to Mexico to be with her parents before they died, or to grieve with other family members.
But she may soon be able to adjust her immigration status — and finally visit the graves of her parents in Puebla, Mexico — because one of her sons, 35-year-old Cesar Vargas, recently enlisted in the military. CBS News, shortly after he completed boot camp.
Through a little-known U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) program for certain family members of U.S. service members known as "Parole in Place," Galindo obtained a document in late July that allows her to remain in the U.S. while she seeks permanent residency. Under this program, she does not need to return to Mexico — and risk being banned from the U.S. for 10 years — to go through the process usually required for people who entered the country illegally to adjust their status.
Soon, the family will file a green card application for Galindo, since one of Vargas' brothers is a U.S. citizen who can sponsor her.
"I'm very happy and very proud of him because he achieved his dream of joining the Army," Galindo said of Vargas, who graduated from basic training earlier this year after afrom undocumented immigrant and trail-blazing attorney to U.S. Army soldier. "And he helped me as well, because, what other way would I have been able to fix my papers?"
"I feel happy because I can finally visit the graves of my parents," she added, standing next to Vargas, who was back in their Staten Island home after spending months training in an Army base in rural Missouri.
Vargas, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist, is slated to serve a six-year term in a reserve unit stationed in New Jersey. He had wanted to enlist in the armed forces since the 9/11 attacks but was only able to do so last year after obtaining a green card through his wife, a U.S. citizen who has also enlisted in the Army.
For Vargas, the hardship he experienced over the 18 years it took for him to enlist — as well as the arduous months-long training in Missouri — was all worth it because of his mother.
"It was what reminded me of, 'OK, this is why I'm doing this. This is why I need to graduate. This is why I need to overcome all these obstacles and pain, so my mom can have the opportunity to one day visit the country she left almost 30 years ago, to visit the graves of her parents that she never said goodbye to,'" he said.
But Vargas' mother might be among the last beneficiaries of the "Parole in Place" program. The Trump administration is currently mulling whether to dismantle it, as it has done with similar programs to fulfill the president's hardline immigration agenda.
Earlier in the summer, a memo was circulated within the Pentagon indicating that USCIS was looking to get rid of the "Parole in Place" program, according to Margaret Stock, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and immigration attorney who represents military families.
Since they were made aware of existence of the memo, Stock said lawyers like her have been scrambling to file petitions for the program.
"Right now, immigration lawyers are frantically applying for as many people as they can, because the thinking is if you apply before they get rid of the policy, at least maybe you will be grandfathered, your application will be considered anyway because you already filed it," she said.
A USCIS official confirmed the agency has not yet made a decision about terminating the program but said it "remains under review."
According to the official, USCIS, which is in charge of administering benefits for immigrants, refugees and would-be citizens, is "reviewing" all parole programs to ensure they are consistent with existing law and one of President Trump's first executive orders in January 2017 which called for the end of "the abuse of parole."
Earlier this month, the agency, now led by immigration hawk Ken Cuccinelli, announced it would terminate two parole programs, one for family members of aging Filipino veterans of World War II and the other for certain people in Haiti with family members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
"Under these categorical parole programs, individuals have been able to skip the line and bypass the proper channels established by Congress," Cuccinelli wrote in a statement when announcing the end of the programs. "With the termination of these programs, these individuals will no longer be permitted to wait in the United States for their family-based green card to become available, consistent with the rules that apply to the rest of the world."
"Deported by your own government"
Stock, the immigration lawyer, noted that the problem the "Parole in Place" program was designed to fix for military families stemmed from the Clinton-era Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which she called the "toughest immigration law in American history."
Along with bolstering immigration enforcement and expanding the categories of immigrants who could be deported, the law made it much more difficult for undocumented people to adjust their status while in the U.S. Under the 1996 law, unauthorized immigrants seeking green cards, through marriage to U.S. citizens or petitions filed by certain U.S. citizen family members, must leave the country, file an application overseas and likely face a three or 10-year bar from re-entering the U.S.
"It was a literal Catch-22 built into the law," Stock said, adding that many family members feared going through this process and triggering the multi-year waiting period, which can only be waived by proving extreme hardship. "It didn't make any sense, but it's part of the law today."
Stock, who taught constitutional, military and national security law at West Point for nine years, said the 1996 law was hurting military families and readiness among active duty units, with some troops requesting to leave the armed forces because they couldn't bear being separated from their family members for a decade.
"You could be a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guard member and you're told that your wife has to leave the country for 10 years in order to get her green card," Stock said, noting that the possibility of a family member's deportation is demoralizing for those serving in uniform.
Vargas, whose mother was not allowed to attend his graduation from boot camp because of her status, agrees. "Should my mom be deported, detained or arrested because she has no immigration status by my own government, it is absolutely distracting," he said.
"The first thing they tell us, our commanders, is, 'Focus on the mission. The mission is always first. The mission always comes first — that's a priority,'" Vargas added. "And when you're worried that your mom, or your parents or your spouse or a loved one is going to be deported by your own government, that can distract you from the mission."
Stock said the dilemma faced by several family members attracted national attention in 2007, when the U.S. government was trying to deport, a soldier who was missing in action in Iraq. After an outcry and pressure from lawmakers, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security at the time, stepped in and granted parole in place to Jimenez's wife. Jimenez's skeletal remains were found in Iraq in 2008.
After this incident, Stock said the Bush administration started to grant the "Parole in Place" relief to family members of U.S. service members.
In 2010, Janet Napolitano, President Obama's first homeland security secretary, formally notified Congress that the agency was exercising this discretionary option to "minimize" family separations. Napolitano was responding to a letter signed by a bipartisan group of concerned lawmakers who urged her to "provide some relief" to soldiers and their immigrant families. Among those who signed the letter was then-Congressman Mike Pence, who, in his current role as vice president, has vocally supported Mr. Trump's immigration agenda.
USCIS officially instituted the program through memos in 2013 and 2016, offering the relief to spouses, parents and children of active-duty soldiers, active reservists and honorably discharged veterans. The program, like other parole options, was derived from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which allows the government to parole certain people into the country on humanitarian grounds.
"It was designed to prevent family separation and enhance military readiness," Stock said.
"These are soldiers who are incredibly patriotic"
Stock said there's no substantive pretext to end the "Parole in Place" program. For her, a decision to terminate it should spark public uproar.
"There absolutely should be an outcry about it. It's ridiculous. There's not benefit to the country from getting rid of the program, at all — zero," she said. "It's ideological. They don't like immigration benefits and they don't like people getting legal [status]."
Along with hindering military readiness and fueling concerns about a family member's deportation, Stock said the program's end would also dissuade many from joining the armed forces, as the option is one of many military benefits would-be recruits consider before enlisting. "It's been good for recruiting, too — which is a sore point right now," she added.
The Pentagon referred all questions about the program's potential termination — including those concerning the potential negative effects on troop morale, readiness and recruitment — to USCIS, saying the relief option is not within its purview. USCIS did not address these concerns.
For Vargas, it would be "bittersweet" if his mother is among the last to benefit from this program, which he said should not be controversial, especially for the president, who frequently touts his support for the nation's military.
"President Trump has clearly been a vocal advocate of veterans and soldiers and our military. But at the same time, we know very well that his administration is staffed with individuals like Stephen Miller," he said, referring to the president's senior adviser who advocates for hardline immigration policies. "This administration is listening to the most far-right elements of the immigration debate."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the program's potential termination.
The 35-year-old soldier, who is a former Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, offered his commander in chief some advice as the administration determines whether to end the program that will one day allow his mother to finally adjust her status.
"Talk to your soldiers, like any commander does," Vargas said. "These are soldiers who are incredibly patriotic, who love this country just as I do, but who have families whose parents are undocumented."